Of all the Trollope novels I’ve read (and, God help me, I’ve read at least 20), The Vicar of Bullhampton (1869-70) is perhaps the oddest. Its story lines are very loosely tied together, with a murder investigation taking a backseat to the gripping legal drama over whether a dissenters’ chapel will be built too close to the vicar’s garden. The love story is highly undercooked, with the eventual groom barely a character — virtually nothing he says or does is more memorable than Trollope’s initial description of his elaborate mustache. We’re invited to root for his long-suffering rival, but he is exposed in the end as something of an entitled baby, his persistence less a mark of his character than his lack of it.
In his Autobiography, Trollope explains that he wrote the novel
chiefly with the object of exciting not only pity but sympathy for fallen woman, and of raising a feeling of forgiveness for such in the minds of other women. I could not venture to make this female the heroine of my story. To have made her a heroine at all would have been directly opposed to my purpose. It was necessary therefore that she should be a second-rate personage in the tale;—but it was with reference to her life that the tale was written, and the hero and the heroine with their belongings are all subordinate.
In other words, the titular vicar — a genial, young, happily married provincial cleric who meddles in other people’s business out of boredom, hubris, and possibly concupiscence — is a contrivance as protagonist, there to screen readers from having to face the horridness of the “fallen woman” directly, even though Trollope’s stated goal is to encourage people to regard such women with more compassion.
But because of his unwillingness to focus his story where his interest is, because of the palpable tension between the sympathy Trollope himself has for his fallen woman and his fear of being seen as excusing her behavior, the novel, in its willful misdirection, is especially ripe for a symptomatic reading. Trollope wants to defend his society’s principles of order while simultaneously pointing out their injustice, but he can’t resolve the contradictions. That’s what allows them to ramble to novel’s length.
Trollope is always wrestling with the conflict between the universal order of law and the local particularities that actually do the work of regulating everyday life. In the midst of a discussion of the ill-fated dissenter’s chapel, a lawyer in Vicar of Bullhampton remarks, “Good law is not defined very clearly here in England; but good manners have never been defined at all,” to which a church official responds, “I don’t want anyone to help me on such a matter as that.” But of course Trollope’s readers need precisely that sort of help; that’s where a large part of the pleasure of reading him derives from. All Trollope’s plots emerge from those hazy legal principles and how they are awkwardly adapted in various situations to deal with matters of manners and gentility, what it means to be a proper lady or to be gentlemanly.
In Trollope’s novels, the characters yearn to see manners as law, and have all the contingencies of social interaction contained and solved in advance by an iron-clad code, by the social hierarchy to which all judgments can be referred. The social structure is supposed to process any doubts about how to behave toward whomever; that’s one of its most seductive promises and a chief reason why people ever assented to it in everyday life. It certainly makes the vicar’s enemy, the Marquis of Trowbridge, comfortable. The vicar’s great offense toward him is comparing the Marquis’s daughters to ordinary village folk in the midst of making an argumentative point, evoking the possibility of fluidity in the social structure: “To have an illustration, and a very base illustration, drawn from his own daughters in his own presence, made with the object of confuting himself,—this was more than the Marquis could endure.” This makes the vicar an “infidel” as far as the Marquis is concerned — he doesn’t respect the social gaps measured by the aristocratic order as inherently immeasurable, beyond all comparison.
But Trollope likes to test the universal code of status for weak spots, inventing situations that expose illogicalities or hypocrisies that are usually taken for granted as common sense. His characters scramble to restore the universal truth of manners and the hierarchy they articulate, but the vulnerabilities are always left exposed. We see the ordinary emotional work that’s always involved in maintaining stratification, that must routinely be summoned to deal with impending situations.
In the case of The Vicar of Bullhampton, Trollope is trying to tease out an ideal of forgiveness from within a stratified, patriarchal culture structured by inherited privilege, property settlements through marriage, and primogeniture — all of which making forgiving fallen women impossible.
The problem is that women always have the ability to choose “love” and their own passion and pleasure over “duty,” or what is expected of them to preserve and reproduce the social order. So no punishment is too harsh for women who choose wrong. “Very low … is the degradation to which a girl is brought when she falls through love or vanity, or perhaps from a longing for luxurious ease,” Trollope notes in his Autobiography, before explaining how he wrote Vicar to urge readers to “not fear contamination” from such girls so deeply. Even when fallen women are being made an example of, they are still dangerous; even as unmistakable pariahs they still somehow convey the dangerous possibility of an alternative, not a lesson in the rectitude of following patriarchy’s rules. In Vicar of Bullhampton, Trollope has various characters describe the novel’s fallen woman, Carry Brattle, as “unthinkable,” and he means it literally. The logic of the social order would make it impossible to conceive of the possibility of a fallen woman. Yet there they are, in society’s midst.
Trollope leads us to believe that Carry has made the wrong choice because her beauty brought her too much easy attention — “She was such a morsel of fruit as men do choose, when allowed to range and pick through the whole length of the garden wall” — and this familiarity with being flattered gave her an inappropriate sense of what “love” consists of and led to her downfall.
Though love is acknowledged in Trollope’s books as the only ambition Victorian women can properly have, it still won’t quite do to let them come to an unguided understanding of what it is. A good way to keep women in line in a patriarchal society such as Trollope depicts is to redefine what “love” is supposed to mean for women and make them accept it — in other words, to get women to feel that love and duty are inseparable, as they are for the idealized wives in Trollope’s books. Thus when Mary Lowther, a friend of the vicar’s wife, can’t bring herself to love the vicar’s best friend, Harry Gilmore, a rich local squire who has proposed to her a wedding that makes eminent social and financial sense, both the vicar and his wife work on Mary to try to persuade her that her idea of love is naive and wrong and that she has no choice but to marry Harry for her own good. “Marry him and you will adore him afterwards,” the vicar’s wife tells her.
Mary functions as a sort of thematic proxy for Carry, whose whoredom makes her mind and moral decisionmaking process basically unrepresentable, unable to be entered into. Trollope never tries to defend Carry’s choices; he makes an essentially spiritual argument for why she should be forgiven (forgive her because its the Christian thing to do, because who among us is above sin, etc.), as though no earthly justification could be made for a woman pursuing sexual pleasure. Trollope acknowledges the practical flimsiness of this argument by having Carry’s sister-in-law destroy it when the vicar goes to her house to try and get her to take Carry in (rather than have her sent to a reformatory). “People knows well enough what’s good for them to do and what isn’t without being dictated to by a clergyman,” she tells the vicar after enumerating all the social consequences being related to a fallen women has on the family name. Respectability isn’t simply some moral ideal for the lower classes; it’s a huge part of their labor’s marketability. And in a culture where most traits are deemed heritable, like property, great effort must be made to stop the communicability of social disgrace. The vicar’s social position only barely prevents him from being disgraced by association with Carry (a marquis he feuds with spreads malicious gossip on the basis of the association); Carry’s sister-in-law has no such advantage.
Trollope never enters into Carry’s mind to explain her deeds from her perspective; he merely lets everyone associated with her expound on their shame and humiliation and wish that Carry had never been born and so on. By contrast, he spends countless pages presenting Mary’s dilemma from all sides, inviting us to at least understand why she makes her antisocial, “selfish” decisions in favor of love throughout the book. We are told that she “had read about love, and talked about love; and she desired to be in love,” and thus can’t accept that there is nothing more to it than duty or conformity, the pleasure of doing what your friends tell you to do. When she meets her cousin Walter, she very quickly experiences what Trollope seems to want us to take as real love, a passionate obedience that stems from some inarticulate but undeniable attachment. Trollope doesn’t really bother to explain this kind of love either; he expects readers will accept that real love can’t be vulgarized with justifications or explanations about where it comes from. It just is. It is as unrepresentable as whatever made Carry “disgrace herself”; it’s the same thing but seen from the reverse perspective — a reversal that seems authorized by Mary’s class status being considerably higher than Carry’s.
The upshot is that when Walter proposes to Mary, she can’t even consider refusing:
She could not say No to him. She had struggled often in reference to Mr. Gilmore, and had found it impossible to say Yes. There was now the same sort of impossibility in regard to the No.
This is one of the many places where Trollope is struggling himself. He is trying to make love both a mode of female discipline and an expression of some sort of divine grace or at least some sort of transcendental chemistry between people that is not a matter of calculation, self-interest, or humdrum contingency. He wants love to be a way to get women to do their duty happily — sugaring the pill of patriarchy — but he also wants to respect love’s mystery, and by extension, women’s resilience. Love is the guarantor for what is real and redemptive beyond all the dismal, often sordid dealings of society, with all its stringent pieties and hypocrisies. He wants love to work like the universal law is supposed to work, like the Marquis of Trowbridge believes aristocratic hierarchy works, resolving all questions absolutely. But he also wants love to be proved by being an exception to all rules, by being itself an irrecuperable contingency, good for nothing but itself and only known to be true through inutility.
The narrative plays further variations on the problem of love’s having to both ordering society and transcend instrumentality. Mary’s story seems to show that women should never consider marrying where they don’t love, but at the same time it shows that woman’s passion is capricious and disruptive, unsettling the expectations society has learned to deem reasonable. Trollope contrives a complicated series of events to make it impossible for Mary to marry Walter, who has been defrauded of his inheritance. Since she feels that her life will mean nothing to her anyway, she decides she may as well do her duty and make Gilmore and all her friends and family happy by marrying him. Under the guiding influence of the vicar and his wife, she works hard to try to love him: “As she walked back with him to the vicarage her hand rested heavily on his arm, and when she asked him some question about his land, she was able so to modulate her voice as to make him believe that she was learning to regard his interests as her own.”
Then, of course, circumstances change, and Walter’s prospects become hopeful enough for him to propose to her again. Here’s how Trollope wraps up her plot arc:
Now the narrator will bid adieu to Mary Lowther… The conduct of his heroine, as depicted in these pages, will, he fears, meet with the disapprobation of many close and good judges of female character. He has endeavoured to describe a young woman, prompted in all her doings by a conscience wide awake, guided by principle, willing, if need be, to sacrifice herself, struggling always to keep herself from doing wrong, but yet causing infinite grief to others, and nearly bringing herself to utter shipwreck, because, for a while, she allowed herself to believe that it would be right for her to marry a man whom she did not love.
We see a lot of that disapprobation in the novel, but it earns her our sympathy. When she breaks her engagement off with Gilmore, to everyone’s dismay, she meets with him to tell him to his face. Gilmore basically calls her a whore: “If you were my sister, my ears would tingle with shame when your name was mentioned in my presence,” he tells her, and we’ve seen enough of Carry’s story to get what that means. “I begin to think that I have been wrong all through in my ideas of a woman’s character,” he says. “You can own that you give yourself about first to one man, and then to another, just as may suit you at the moment! I would not have believed it of any woman.” Her behavior is as unthinkable as Carry’s, only Trollope has contrived it so he can make us identify with her and regard Gilmore as an intemperate bully.
Gilmore has made the mistake of falling in love himself, but love is the woman’s palliative; men are not supposed to take it so hard. When he mopes about losing Mary, the vicar accosts him repeatedly about his unmanly behavior:
“Do you mean to say that you will yield up all your strength, all your duty, all your life, and throw over every purpose of your existence because you have been ill-used by a wench? Is that your idea of manhood,—of that manhood you have so often preached?”
One of the prices that men pay for patriarchy is that they must subordinate love to other projects, no matter how strong they feel it. Mary’s purpose for living is unproblematically to love Walter and enlarge herself through that experience of love — she has the luxury of genuine feeling. Gilmore’s “every purpose in life,” by the vicar’s lights, is everything but his capacity to love with constancy. Women, like Mary, are saved by such fidelity; men are ruined by it. Trollope doesn’t seem comfortable with this implication, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with Gilmore. He just gets sent abroad, though he returns in the novel’s ambiguous last sentence to haunt readers: “Mr. Gilmore has been some years away from Bullhampton; but when I last heard from my friends in that village I was told that at last he was expected home.” He’s not actually back, comfortable in his proper social place; they just expect him to be soon. That stable social order is just ahead, on the horizon, out there in the provincial village, a rumor. But Gilmore’s probably right in thinking he has no home to return to; it was never what he was taught to believe it was in the first place.